Tag Archives: Works of Mercy

Unwanted Holiness

As the United States screeches with discord and distrust, the people in pulpits and in pews are exhausted. Some had loved ones piloting evacuation flights out of Kabul. Others have spent long hours working in crowded ICUs, nurses or chaplains or doctors breaking down in tears. Firefighters on the West Coast have their pick of blazes incinerating once-lively trees to ash, and in some parts of the South, the power is beginning to blink back on. Who wants holiness if it looks like this?

Somewhere along the line, we get the idea that holiness requires energy. Sure, we know that sanctification is a gift of grace to be received. Naturally. Countless Christians in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition have experienced some kind of moment in which God comes to us to do something in our hearts that we are powerless to do ourselves. We know this. We know that works of piety and works of mercy – spiritual disciplines, caring for poor, broke, or incarcerated people -we know those actions don’t create holiness. They are a response to grace; they make room for the Holy Spirit to continue to work in us and through us. We know that sanctifying grace is a gift.

And yet.

It is easy to get the idea that holiness requires energy.

How will you grow if you’re not getting yourself to a Bible study or small group? How will you foster the grace of Christ at work in you if you aren’t seeking out ways to serve others, at the food pantry or through the altar guild or volunteering with, heaven help them, the junior highers?

Of course churches need volunteers.

Of course you want to grow in holiness.

But the hundreds of pastors, church leaders, professors, and chaplains I know do not feel an overabundance of energy right now. Between executive function fatigue (decision fatigue) and constantly putting out fires and choosing between making 50 percent of people angry or the other 50 percent of people angry and attempting to construct any kind of planning or scheduling with a viral variant that’s 1,200 times more transmissible than the original COVID-19 strains, there are very few pastors with the energy they think they need to be holy. There are very few nurses, doctors, or nursing home workers with energy for anything other than showing up and doing what has to be done.

Can holiness look like this?

Can holiness look like exhaustion, burnout, panic attacks, depression, crisis intervention, peace-keeping – even numbness?

Can I tell you something?

Some of the holiest people I’ve seen in the past 18 months have looked just like that. Some of the sweetest anointing has enveloped leaders who are tired, grieving, exhausted, burned out, or even numb.

You do not have to have energy to be holy.

This is something elderly people in long-term care facilities already know. It’s just something most people don’t want to have to learn personally for ourselves – because energy is power; control; agency.

And if you’re asking, dear God, how can my numb trauma be holy? then I invite you to listen to an audio version of 1 Kings 18 and 19 – when Elijah the prophet is in a showdown with the prophets of Baal. God honors Elijah and sends fire from the sky. But afterward, Elijah’s life is on the line. He is exhausted. He runs. He curls up too tired to do anything to protect himself. Fed by divine intervention, he runs more, to take shelter in the mountain of God. And God does not come to Elijah in an impersonal show of force, in crashing theophany. God gently arrives in the still whispering rustle, and Elijah is safe to pour out his heart and his heartbreak. After he does, God quietly reminds him that as alone as he feels, he is not alone. And to relieve Elijah’s burden further, he directs him to Elisha.

It seems to me that one of the most tender moments in these two chapters comes in 18:30 – “Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come here to me.’ They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down.” The prophets of Baal had been frantic, mutilating themselves, calling on Baal. But when it is Elijah’s turn, there is a sense that this is an act of grief, a labor of love: rebuilding what had been torn down, taking 12 stones and building an altar “in the name of the Lord.” (v. 32) What do you rebuild? You rebuild what you love. Where there is grief in the ruins, there is hope in the rebuilding. But it is manual labor: hard work, smashed fingers, bruised thumbnails, a sore back. His hands must have been so tired, his muscles strained. What a beautiful labor of love. No frantic shrieking; just the loving repair of what had been in ruins.

What an offering to give to God: smashed fingers, bruised thumbnails, a sore back – an altar that had been desecrated, repaired.

If you believe holiness requires energy, it will be easy to believe you can detect when it is you are being or acting holy. But most genuine holiness, I am convinced, accompanies your lack of awareness of it. It is accidental – incidental. It happens behind your back, when you’re not looking. It shadows you on your off-days.

There is a holiness of proximity that has nothing to do with energy.

It is proximity to Christ, and it is proximity to the overlooked people Christ loves.

You do not have to have energy to be in close proximity to the quiet warmth of Jesus Christ.

Elijah collapsed and didn’t care if he lived or died, after running away. It was God who enabled him to travel: “the journey is too much for you.” (19:7) When he reached the mountain of God – he slept. (19:9) Only after he rested, did God ask him what brought him there. Elijah’s strained brain chemistry could not detect the presence of God in the overwhelming sensory stimuli of loud sounds or shaking ground or bright light; he did not have the energy for that. So God whispered.

The holiness of proximity is standing, sitting, or lying in the safe presence of God, however you feel, however you don’t have the energy to feel.

There is also a holiness of proximity when you draw near to people others are ignoring. Mother Teresa exemplified this well. The embodiment of the Beatitudes is a sacred thing to witness. Blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the merciful. When you care for sick bodies or cry with grief-stricken loved ones, you are in the proximity of the blessed ones; you are blessed when you are merciful to them.

You do not have to have energy to be holy. Your exhaustion, your grief, your numbness – none of those things keep you from being holy. Whether or not you feel the presence of God, you are so close to the side of Christ that you shine when your back is turned, when you’re not even aware of it.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

What are you doing here, Elijah?


Featured image courtesy Marek Piwnicki via Unsplash.

Gathering in Worship Again: Ways to Mark Change

As many congregations return to gathering in new or partial ways after a period of virtual worship, there are both logistical challenges and shepherding challenges. Essentially, widespread change has occurred in a condensed and contentious time. Some shared rituals in worship function as rites of passage, like funerals; the loss of sharing these rituals as a community has at times been devastating. For many, the past 12 months have been marked by uncertainty, frustration, fear, loss, anxiety, stress, and relief; but not only are we, in the midst of life, in death; we are also, in death, in the midst of life. Babies have been welcomed, weddings performed, new vocations discovered. In liminal times of emotional complexity, humans crave communal markers to express the cry of the heart and to clarify seasons and meaning. Symbols can carry layers of meaning when life experiences are so tangled that mere literal words struggle to hold the weight. In Christian worship, these symbols aren’t only functions of community expression; they are received as means of grace that reveal the very heart of God. Not every Christian symbol is a sacrament, but many moments in embodied Christian worship have the capacity to serve as means of grace.

As believers begin gathering in person again, what are some practical ways a community can bear witness to the loss and hope woven throughout the past year? Surveying the sheer scope of change – good or bad – that individuals and communities have endured, how is room made for lament, celebration, and the exhaustion in between? Finding ways to mark change sits peacefully with the reality that everyone – individuals, communities, regions, countries – will re-enter familiar patterns at different paces, due to varying needs and conditions.

What are some recurring cries of the heart expressed by Christians and non-Christians, leaders and laypeople alike? Many are echoed in Psalms of lament. Gathering again stirs a variety of responses among people. There may be:

  • Relief, celebration, joy
  • Grief at the empty spaces of those who have died
  • Grief at the loss of daily rituals and companionship
  • Fear that accommodations for the disabled or home-bound will be forgotten
  • Distrust of others fueled by differing perspectives
  • Impatience for places and practices to look like they used to
  • Fatigue of tragedy and bad news
  • Relief at return to familiar space and practices
  • Guilt from surviving or experiencing the pandemic relatively unscathed
  • Anxiety from uncertainty in social interaction
  • Gratitude for the ability to begin gathering again, even with adaptations

Thankfully, there are some helpful liturgical resources from The Episcopal Church, the Church of England, and the Methodist Church in Britain that provide some markers to guide worshipers through the fog. From the inability to write in a coffee shop to the death of a loved one, from losing a business to losing facial expressions to educational upheaval, there is space to mark changes big and small, yet not-so-small. Jesus wept over the dead and heard the cry of the falling sparrow alike; and people who live alone, and people who live in families with children, all have something they’ve lost and found in the past year. There is room in the heart of God, and there is space in the worshiping community, for all of it – tragic fatality and kids’ disappointed plans alike.

The Liturgy of Gathering Again: Lament, Remembrance, Thanksgiving

The loss of usual funeral rituals has stolen the opportunity for loved ones to receive the healing honor of community witness. Not only have families of the deceased been affected, but communities themselves have endured the loss of sharing in these rituals. Some communities have lost many – so many it’s difficult to keep track. Health care workers sometimes lost the in-person support and services of hospital or hospice chaplains, finding themselves end-of-life witnesses. At the same time, many people have been limited in ways they can express thanks and gratitude for the many health care workers who labored often behind the scenes in very difficult circumstances.

The Church of England has shared valuable resources and reflections on opportunities to hold general services of lament, specific services of remembrance or memorial, and services of thanksgiving. For instance, on remembering and memorials, the counsel in one guide prompts that,

“The two main elements that memorial services and remembering events need to offer are opportunities to mourn and to give thanks:
• Acknowledgement of suffering, loss and death
• Gratitude for all who have helped in so many ways
• Thanks for survival, health and wellbeing
• Thanks for the life of the individual(s) who has died”

There are also insights on the value of services of restoration – a time of worship designed to bridge worshipers from crisis and loss toward renewed trust for the future. “Naming the unexpected gifts of this crisis as well as its challenges, celebrating the rediscovery of the importance of the local, and the resurgence of neighbourliness will enable the journey of renewal and restoration. Consideration may be given to bring an act of worship to focus in some sort of symbolic act of restoration, entrusting ourselves to the God who leads us into his future.”

The Timing of Gathering Again: Scattered & Together

Depending on the region or specific community needs, some congregations have not yet begun to re-gather, or haven’t started gathering again fully. One resource from the Methodist Church in Britain provides a service guide called “Beyond Exile: A service to celebrate a return to public worship.” Adaptable for local circumstances, it includes liturgy, planning notes, preaching notes, and new hymns for “a returning congregation” for situations that include congregational singing. From this service, one excerpt from the “litany of lament” questions,

“We thought we knew how the world was meant to be. We would see colleagues, friends and loved ones again, and we would embrace, laugh and share stories as we always have. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

And now, we know something new. We know that the world is not ours to control, and that our plans are confounded by the smallest microbe. God is teaching us a new song, for a new land.

For places with many restrictions still in place, when believers may still be scattered or unable to provide in-person support, the Methodist Church in Britain also has adapted prayers for “the dying, the bereaved, and those who cannot attend a funeral.”

The Visual Cues of Gathering Again: Re-Entering the Public

This global moment invites people of all walks of life to re-engage with the practice of public mourning: not as a maudlin display of self-importance, but as a healthy tool of communication. But it’s been decades since people regularly wore the formerly common black armbands, like the character George Bailey when his father died in the film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” A black piece of fabric around the upper arm is a visual cue to strangers and acquaintances alike: be kind, tread gently, this person is grieving, give some extra grace for a while. A more modern version is a simple black silicone band marked with words like, “I’m grieving” – just enough to remind the wearer and others that all is not well.

Sometimes, biblical phrasing like, “sackcloth and ashes” or “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is used figuratively – few Americans would grieve now wearing scratchy cloth or ashes. But grief and lament are not antithetical to faith. They are emblems of love, that “greatest of these.” They do not betray a lack of hope or trust; they hope and trust in God’s character, willing to express without repression. Demonstrating grief is Christlike: Christ, who groaned at Lazarus’ death, who wept over Jerusalem. (Tish Harrison Warren’s uncannily timed Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep is a gift for the grieving and those who love them.)

For those who re-enter worship or public gathering with other infirmity, like ongoing health risk, there are other visual cues available to communicate simply with others. Wrist bands like Social Bands quickly cue an individual’s risk and desire for physical engagement. Ongoing consideration for others may well be one of the strongest notes of public witness that Christians can sound right now – consideration regardless of one’s own assessment or perception of risk.

At a basic level, hospitality is in part anticipating the needs of another and proactively preparing for them. Welcoming the jubilant alongside the dazed and shell-shocked means providing space and opportunity for both to bear witness to the changes in the lives of the other. In gathering, all are invited to bring the cries of their hearts to God in worship, receiving the same shared grace that offers hope, comfort, and celebration to each vulnerable heart.


Featured image courtesy Luke Carliff via Unsplash.

Lenten Love: Make Things Better

The Lenten season has started. Lent is six weeks (excluding Sundays) dedicated to prayer, fasting, and reflection to prepare for the grand celebration of Christ conquering death and his resurrection.

When I think of Lent, I am reminded that Easter is coming. We will soon celebrate the victory of Jesus over death through his resurrection and the gifts of forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all those who believe in him. In light of this, this Lenten season invites us to a particular time of reflection about our relationship with God and how we practice what we say we believe. As we are reminded of the meaning and purpose of our faith, we are also confronted with the realization that we may not be living up to the expectations of Jesus’ teachings.

Are we living up to Jesus’ teachings? Are we there yet? If you are like me, then you are far from it. We are trying; we stumble now and then, but we are not in denial, and we are making progress, even if it is just a little bit every day. With this in mind, I invite you to a serious and responsible self-reflection about how you are living your faith, but most importantly, how your relationship is with God and with one another.

Henri Nouwen described Lent as a time to refocus, to reenter a place of truth, to find ourselves in God once again. This is precisely what I want us to do this Lenten season: to find our place in God and affirm our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Let’s begin with a simple question: how are you observing Lent?

Are you fasting, reading Scripture, praying? Great! That’s what the church traditionally has done for many centuries. Lent is a time of faith renewal as much as it may be a time of reconciliation with God. Fasting, reading Scripture, and praying are means of grace that help us be strong in our faith and close to God. So if you are practicing this, that is wonderful; keep doing it!

Today’s challenge is to go beyond a personal renewal of our faith and reconciliation with God. What if we commit to practice our faith to make the world better: more loving, more kind, compassionate, truthful, and empty of hate and evil? What if we show our faith to others in ways that make life better for them? What if we are a tangible blessing to others?

One of the most prominent critiques I make is that often, we are primarily known for what we are against than for what we offer. Our faith is more about how we make things better for all people, just like Jesus did. With this in mind, here is an idea of how we can observe Lent this year. The reading from Romans 12:9-21 using The Message translation encourages us like this:

Don’t fake your love, be real. Run away from evil; cling to good. Be good friends who love deeply. If you see someone in need, do something about it. Don’t be a cause for others to trip over but bless those even when they disagree with you. Laugh with your friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Discover beauty in everyone. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do, but be generous in your goodness to all people. And last, don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

As you can see, in this Scripture, Paul describes how Christians are to love each other and how we are to engage in our relationships with others. Paul explains that Christian behavior is doing everything for all people’s common good.

Our text doesn’t just say, “Love others more,” but it describes specific behaviors for loving others that Jesus himself modeled. This helps us see that Christian love is not just being nice to people; Christian love has a moral orientation toward the good. When we show love toward someone, we are moving them toward God’s goodness, so they too may find themselves in God. That is what Christian witness is, both during the Lenten season and throughout the year.

Since our faith is less about what we don’t do and much more about how we make things better for all people – just like Jesus did – let’s make part of our Lent resolutions to bring people to Jesus by practicing genuine love and showing generous goodness.


Featured image courtesy Ante Gudelj on Unsplash.

Review: Dr. Rob Haynes Explores “Renew Your Wesleyan DNA”

What makes a Methodist a “Methodist”? This is an increasingly important question in the age of the rise of secularism, the decline of churches in the West, and other significant challenges in the Wesleyan/Methodist movement. As younger generations decreasingly emphasize the role of denominations, many people are no longer aware of the rich history and theology of the Wesleyan/Methodist churches they call home. In some parts of the world, leaders need fresh encouragement for mission and ministry. All the while, the global Wesleyan movement remains strong, and God continues to use it to share and show the love of Jesus Christ.

Renew Your Wesleyan DNA: Pursue God’s Mission in Your Life and Church by Engaging with the Essential Strands of Wesleyan Theology Cherished by Global Methodism by Rev. Dr. Richard Waugh (Australia: Cypress Project, 2019) is a critical resource to help contemporary Wesleyans learn the history of the movement while valuing the principles that continue to guide the most vibrant Wesleyan/Methodist churches. However, Waugh’s work is not merely a historical retelling. It is an examination and appreciation of the core of the Methodist movement. It is a call for churches and leaders to reflect upon their own ministries and reorient them for the vibrancy experienced when the “people called Methodists” are faithful to God’s call and mission.

The book is divided into eight chapters around three themes: Wesleyan Identity, Wesleyan DNA, and 21st-Century Ministry. Independently and cohesively, these provide a helpful view of the rich history of the Wesleyan movement, its ability to hold a variety of theological positions in a healthy tension, and a call to action for the contemporary church. Waugh identifies five strands of Wesleyan DNA: Creator’s Mission, Salvation, Transformation, Means of Grace, and Ministry with the Poor. These, he says, “encapsulate the essence…of Wesleyan emphases.” He uses them to illustrate the unique way in which John Wesley balanced biblical and theological principles. Waugh demonstrates their application for modern Christian discipleship. The book’s usability is further expanded through the author’s inclusion of historical and theological profiles that show evidence of Wesleyan DNA through various expressions of the global church. While these profiles include a brief historical account, the highlighting of the contemporary gospel witness in each context is enriching.

The global Wesleyan movement has a varied and complex history. Waugh successfully navigates this complexity by providing two separate narratives to illustrate one grand story: the first primarily concentrates on geographic particularities (see chapter two). The second recounts the ways in which Methodism has influenced various theological streams, ecumenism, missional witness, education, healthcare, and other important areas (see chapter eight). He handles these complexities in a way that remains appropriately thorough yet approachable for a general international audience. After all, according to Waugh, over 100 million people from more than 160 countries follow Jesus in the company of the Wesleys. Appropriately, he does not attempt to recap them all. Rather, he gives proper appreciation of various iterations to encourage the reader to apply the Wesleyan DNA into each local ministry. Throughout the work, Waugh’s unique voice as a Wesleyan Methodist leader from the South Pacific gives an important timbre to the conversation.

In some corners of Methodism, leaders have failed to attend to the doctrine that Mr. Wesley sought to preserve. Publications such as this, grounded in modern biblical and theological scholarship while accessible to a broad audience, are important for a deeper sense of belonging in the way God continues to use the global Wesleyan movement.

With thoughtfulness for local church application, small group discussion questions are included. Other helpful resources include a church audit guide, celebration service, and worship guides for Watchnight, Covenant Renewal, and Aldersgate services.

Renew Your Wesleyan DNA is a helpful addition to the libraries of Wesleyan/Methodist laity and pastors alike. It provides a fresh, global perspective on the vibrancy of the People Called Methodist. The work offers tools for individuals, small groups, and congregations to go deeper in their own faith development alongside their Wesleyan/Methodist kindred in the worldwide movement.


Featured image courtesy Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash.

Epiphany: A Kaleidoscope of Mercy

We have traveled (less this year than others) through the days of Christmas feasting, arriving like the Magi at Epiphany. This is a blessing on a prosaic scale: as a child, Christmas was one day, not 12; and given all the build-up, something seemed off about abandoning festivities so quickly. The cadence of maneuver through 12 days makes more rhythmic sense in the ebb and flow of liturgical tides.

Epiphany restores to the Magi their rightful place in the sequence of the Nativity, tilting them a bit farther away from the rest of the living room Nativity sets. At a distance, the stargazers are not quite elbow to elbow with the shepherds, whose eyes were sometimes less on nighttime stars and more on the threats of their immediate surroundings. The shepherds and sheep figurines may be clustered around the Christ-child; but the Magi are still on their way.

The mercy of revelation – because revelation from an all-powerful, transcendent God of love is mercy to humans who would not be able to grasp God’s nature on our own – may vary in timing. Like a gently shifted kaleidoscope, God’s mercy appears in one set of colors and shapes, then slides and trickles into another as time passes and the kaleidoscope is moved. The tints and outlines of mercy appear to animal caretakers keeping watch at night; the kaleidoscope tilts, and the same mercy appears, this time to star-gazing scholars – to Gentiles.

Epiphany is a swirl of colors and shapes that, when tilted again, reflects the mirrored patterns of mercy in John 4. Here, we watch Jesus as he “has” to go through Samaria; we watch his disciples go into town to buy lunch; we watch him talk with a woman, a Samaritan woman, by a well. We watch him disclose to her what he rarely verbally affirmed – that he is in fact the Messiah. She doesn’t know about the myrrh and frankincense and gold that strangers brought to his parents when he was two, but she receives the same mercy that the Magi received when they brought their gifts. When the disciples return with lunch and encourage Jesus to eat, we see him respond, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” In truth, he is revealing that he has mercy that they know nothing about.

To draw from his own well of hidden mercy – this is why Jesus had to go through Samaria. At the time of his birth, what attention did the priests and scribes pay to – astronomy? Yet there was mercy hidden from their view but written in the stars.

“I have mercy you know not of.” A flash, blinding light – otherworldly beings appear to shepherds who smell of dung. An appearance in the night sky of a new celestial body captures the attention of foreign mages. A cleared throat and polite voice sounding young and ancient at the same time asks for a drink of water at a well at mid-day.

The kaleidoscope turns; the mercy of revelation remains.

Is revelation always a mercy? Yes – even if it is our undoing. Madeleine L’Engle wrote of this trade in an Epiphany poem, “One King’s Epiphany” –

I shall miss the stars.

Not that I shall stop looking
as they pattern their wild will each night
across an inchoate sky, but I must see them with a different awe.
If I trace their flames’ ascending and descending –
relationships and correspondences –
then I deny what they have just revealed.
The sum of their oppositions, juxtapositions, led me to the end of all sums:
a long journey, cold, dark and uncertain,
toward the ultimate equation.
How can I understand? If I turn back from this,
compelled to seek all answers in the stars,
then this – Who – they have led me to
is not the One they said: they will have lied.

No stars are liars!
My life on their truth!
If they had lied about this
I could never trust their power again.

But I believe they showed the truth,
truth breathing,
truth Whom I have touched with my own hands,
worshipped with my gifts.
If I have bowed, made
obeisance to this final arithmetic,
I cannot ask the future from the stars without betraying
the One whom they have led me to.

It will be hard not ask, just once again,
see by mathematical forecast where he will grow,
where go, what kingdom conquer, what crown wear.
But would it not be going beyond truth
(the obscene reduction ad absurdum)
to lose my faith in truth once, and once for all
revealed in the full dayspring of the sun?

I cannot go back to night.
O Truth, O small and unexpected thing,
You have taken so much from me.
How can I bear wisdom’s pain?
But I have been shown: and I have seen.

Yes. I shall miss the stars.

This is mercy – even when it seems harsh: “I cannot go back to night.” We cannot love what leads us to Jesus more than we love Jesus, any more than the Magi could love the stars that led their discovery more than the discovery itself. Who can cling to stars when they have seen the Daystar enfleshed? The stars didn’t lie; but the stars became insufficient. The kaleidoscope simply shifted, putting all their wisdom at the mercy of revelation.

You and I cannot go back to night, even if we love the minute adjustment of telescopes, the star charts, the constellations. Mercy will not let us. This is Epiphany: light to the Gentiles, God’s mercy in vivid form, appearing with ruthlessly consistent love.


Featured image courtesy Biswarup Ganguly.

Visits through the Distance: Pastoral Presence

Raise your hand if you are a pastor who inwardly rejoiced when hospitals closed their doors for pastoral visits because of Covid-19. If only a fleeting moment, did you whisper a sigh of relief because Covid regulations meant you did not have to (a) make an already long day even longer with an afternoon stop by the hospital before heading home, (b) make small talk with a sick patient you hardly knew, or (c) enter a life or death situation where the family counted on you to say words of comfort? Maybe the coronavirus took away the “have to” of hospital visits, freed you from a late day of work, and released you from any perceived pressure to enter the room of a very sick patient and pray “the right words” for the family.

Raise your other hand if you inwardly rejoiced because finally you were given permission not to enter nursing homes. Covid stopped that, too. And hold up a foot if you relaxed, free from having to visit in anyone’s home. Quarantine, self-isolation and social distancing became your favorite vocabulary words as you stayed more in your office, inwardly loving the extra time to study or write your next sermon. And what about that particularly annoying church member who wants visits every day, often, and most of the time? Now you have a medical excuse. Just put on your mask, hold up a bottle of hand sanitizer, and tell her, “it’s for your own good.”

And actually, it is. It’s for your own good, too. If we listen to anything at all on the news, we recognize that Covid-19 is not something for you to ignore. It promises not to ignore you.

However, before we ever heard of this pandemic, there were pastors who felt the call to preach but not the call to reach. Visiting members and guests can be a treacherous journey outside of one’s comfort zone, into a new and frightening place. It can feel so intimidating that you want to run, so scary that you question your calling. After all, God does not give you multiple choice questions of what you would like to do or not do in ministry.  For most pastors, there is a divine and very real pull from God, so strong that it cannot be ignored. It’s a call to preach.

Your part is a simple yes or no.

God sends no divine list with that divine calling. He does not ask if you are shy or bold, happy or melancholy, a “people person” or not. God doesn’t ask if you have counseling skills, if you know how to keep a confidence, or if you know how to laugh and cry with your sheep. God  doesn’t ask if you would like to do a funeral. You will do a funeral. God doesn’t ask if you can speak before a congregation. You will speak before your congregation. He doesn’t ask if you can handle late nights or early mornings. All of this is tucked inside of those initial words calling you to preach the Gospel.

I have my own reasons to be grateful that I don’t have to go into hospitals or nursing homes right now.  Though I’m not the pastor who does not want to visit, I am secretly thankful for permission to stay out of the heat: the burning-South-Georgia- summer-heat that falls all over me, ironing itself to my clothes and burrowing into my skin, pulling the life out of me. Covid saves me from a hot summer car that I would drive to my hot summer pastoral visit. (You’re the first person I’ve told, so please don’t tell.)

Actually, if we are truthful, there has been a sliding away of pastoral visits in recent years. I don’t know exactly when it started, but I do remember two conversations I had a few years ago with two elderly women. Both women’s comments moved into my heart and left a memory that gave me impetus to grow in my own resolve about visiting.

The first woman told me that years ago her pastor went out visiting church members’ places of business when their doors opened in the morning.  She was a hairdresser, and she looked forward to the many days her pastor stopped by just to say hello and offer a prayer before he went to the next member’s workplace. I was impressed, and she was too. The pastoral visit at a business or in a home was expected and welcomed. I felt a little tug at my heart when I recognized pastors used to make in-person visits a priority. What changed?

But it was the second lady’s question that has stayed with me, sitting down in my heart and refusing to budge. I come back over and over to what she asked me, and if my heart could shed tears, I would keep a puddle in my heart’s lining. She was in my denomination but not in my church. In her 70’s, she sought me out at a store, and asked, “BJ, are they teaching at seminary that the pastor does not have to visit the older members?”

I was floored.  She was kind, but serious. Had things gotten so bad in her church that she supposed not visiting was actually on a syllabus and would be covered in class?

She added, “We are the ones who give the most money. Many of us know about tithing, whereas many of the younger members don’t. Yet, we are the ones who are neglected.” There was no self-pity or anger in her voice. She was serious and very concerned. The look in her eyes and the sincerity of her question went home with me that day. I ate her words at supper. Every now and then, they appear on my dinner plate again, and I question if I am part of giving this wrong impression to our older adult members.

God have mercy.

Who will stand up for those who feel unloved and uncared for in our churches? That would be you, the one called to preach and proclaim the message of Christianity.

However, this is nothing new. Ignoring certain groups goes as far back as the beginning of the church in Acts. The Grecian Jews complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. Every human being feels unnoticed and left out at times. I love my John Wesley Study Bible notation for John 4: “Somewhere in the courts of the outcasts, Jesus is always waiting.”

When pandemic closings caused pastors to look for innovative ways to stay in touch, we were offered many. You, like me, are now likely able to Zoom, FaceTime, Facebook Live, and You Tube. I’ve learned how to tune in to an online Sunday School class and to teach an online Bible study. I must admit – I feel a little smug standing before our congregation and listing the several ways they can have church now – virtual church, of course.  (I wish just one person from Generation X, Y or Z would hand me a gold star for my efforts or even better, send someone to me to model these new technological endeavors.)

But as good as technology can be, there is nothing that takes the place of one on one, eyeball to eyeball, ear to heart listening when someone is hurting, lonely, sick or facing isolation that can lead to panic and depression. Pick up the phone. Sit down to write a note of love and appreciation.

Our congregants are lonely for their church family. They are frightened over news reports. They long for a pastor to reach out with warmth and love over the phone or through email, text or regular mail. Be that pastor who feels the loneliness in your congregation. Be the pastor who reaches out to help those who are missing church.

It’s a great time to educate your sheep that church never was a building, anyway. Church is made up of warm souls coming together to know more about a very warm, very alive and very loving Christ who wants to sit by your side and give you a great big hug. Not a virtual hug. A real one that sends waves of peace into your heart.

The Holy Spirit also has something to say during this pandemic. God wants to remind you of his dynamic power in the first few verses in the book of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2, NIV)

That actually describes our current situation. There is an emptiness that causes divisions and strife in this earth. There is darkness due to what we have done to God’s beautiful creation and darkness inside of us due to our questions and fears with this pandemic. Yet, the Spirit is still hovering over you, and God says: “Let there be light…”

There will be an end to this current dilemma.  You will find the light. Get still and sense the Spirit hovering.

Lord, hear our prayer.

Carolyn Moore ~ Spirit-Filled Ministry: “I Forgot How Big”

Do you mind if we drive around a bit in the Word? I’d like to show you some points of interest that changed the way I understand Spirit-filled ministry. If you need to set your GPS, we’re going to start in 2 Timothy, where we’ll pick up a three-letter key. Then we’ll stop in Luke 9 for a map and we’ll stop for gas in Matthew 8.

That’s where someone is going to ask us: “Have you forgotten how big?”(Remember that question.) And so you won’t have to ask, “Are we there yet?” we’ll be ready to come home to the Holy Spirit when we hear Jesus telling his disciples to stay right where they are until they receive power from on high.

In 2 Timothy 4:5 (NIV), I find a three-letter word that seems remarkably poignant for ministry. In this passage, of course, Paul is talking to his friend, Timothy, who he’s mentoring in the ministry and he says this: “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

Until recently, the word I’ve always latched onto in that passage is the word, “evangelist.” My first semester at Asbury, a wonderful evangelist from Australia (Alan Walker) came to speak in chapel. And I went home that night and told my husband, “I want to be an evangelist.” Of course, I had no clue what I was saying. At the time, I thought evangelism was preaching a good message and giving an effective altar call. Or possibly memorizing the four spiritual laws or the Roman Road or working the Evangicube. Or putting tracts in a public bathroom or adding a line to the end of every email that says, “If you love Jesus, forward this to ten friends.”

(I knew a guy who was a genius at asking the ultimate evangelism question – you know the one – “If you die tonight, do you know where you’ll go?” He worked out at the Y every morning, and he said he’d usually wait until he was in the sauna alone with someone – nothing but towels on – and that’s when he’d pop the question.)

I thought that was evangelism and while that may be part of it (though probably not the more effective part), Paul challenges me to think deeper. Here in his letter to Timothy, Paul challenges Timothy to discharge ALL the duties of his ministry. That’s the word that jumped out at me: all. What a loaded three-letter word! It feels like that line at the end of a job description— the one that says, “other duties as assigned.” You don’t find out until you take the job that the “other duties as assigned” take about 40 hours of your work week.

What Paul is trying to tell his first-century audience and also me is that evangelism is a package deal. It is preaching and acts of mercy. Word and works. To do the work of an evangelist, we have to discharge all the duties of ministry. Thomas Fuller, a Puritan, once said that the words of the wise are like nails fastened by masters, but our examples are like the hammers that drive them in. Word and works. In other words, what good is a bucketful of nails if you’ve got no hammer?

I think I found those “other duties as assigned” in the first couple of verses of Luke, chapter 9. This is where Jesus sends out the twelve to do evangelism, and here’s how he defines that little word. Luke 9:1-2 says, When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.

So when Jesus gave normal people the power and authority to do evangelism, here’s how he defined that little word “all.” He sent them to drive out demons, cure diseases, preach the Kingdom of God, and heal the sick. Because this is how Jesus believed the Kingdom of God could best be explained. Word and works. Just like Jesus did it; that’s the job description.

To flesh that out, go back to Matthew, chapter 8. This is an amazing chapter, actually — a fireworks display of healing. Right off the bat, Jesus heals a man with leprosy, and by touching him, he heals him all the way through. Then he meets up with a centurion who came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.” Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.” The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith…Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that very hour. (Matthew 8:5-10, 13)

Now, contrast this guy’s faith with something that happens just a few paragraphs down in the same chapter of Matthew. They’ve been healing people and casting out demons and now Jesus has crawled in a boat just to get away from the crowd for a bit. To take a nap. The followers and Jesus are all there in a boat crossing a lake when a furious storm crops up and scares the heck out of his disciples. Jesus is sleeping, of course, so they wake him and that’s when he says, “Oh, you of little faith, why are you so afraid?”

Picture this: On one hand we’ve got a handful of guys who make their living evangelizing and they are scared to death and faithless. On the other hand, we’ve got your average Joe Centurion who actually knows nothing for sure, except his need. And the power of God.

I understand these people better than I want to admit. I know what it means to become so focused on the work and the politics and the systems and the next big book that’s going to tell us how to really do it right, that I can forget what Jesus is capable of and why he’s filled me with the Holy Spirit and what he’s called me to do. Somehow (I’m sure this is not the correct theological language), it seems like the Spirit leaks out. Or maybe I push him out. I know it has happened when I find myself telling God how big my storm is, rather than telling my storm how big my God is.

Does this sound familiar?

My daughter says I can trace every sermon point back to a scene from Joe Vs. the Volcano. I don’t know if that’s true, but there is this scene in Joe vs. the Volcano. It comes after they’ve survived a typhoon and a shipwreck and they are stranded on a raft in the middle of the Pacific. They’ve been through so much, and now Joe is as close to death as it gets. And that’s when he remembers. He is on his raft facing the moon as it rises over the horizon of the water. It is huge and just there before him, almost as if it could be touched. Joe is delirious, and for him this moon is something supernatural — perhaps even God himself. As the moon rises, Joe sinks slowly to his knees, places both arms in the air and says, “Thank you. Thank you for my life. I forgot …how …BIG …”

How easy it is, in the midst of ministry, to forget how big. All the hoops we jump through and all the personalities we juggle can sap the joy right out. Before we know it, we’ve forgotten just what it is we signed on for, and just how big our God is. Have you forgotten how big? I wonder how it might change the spiritual atmosphere if we could all just put our hands in the air and confess together, “God, I forgot how big!”

My experience after fifteen years of ministry and the start of two congregations is that the only thing standing between me and complete burn-out is not success, but the power of God. It is the power of God that saves me from myself. And make no mistake about it: until we get the bigness of God, we won’t be qualified to discharge the “other duties as assigned.” All the duties of ministry. To cast out demons, cure diseases, proclaim the Kingdom, heal the sick. Because that’s what they are hungry for, these people who come limping into our faith communities. And clearly, this is the work of ministry Jesus expected of his followers.

But here’s the shame of it. The very things Jesus sent his followers out to do are the very things we’ve lost faith in. In fact, our culture has come to accept an hour in church and a blessing before meals as the center of the Christian experience, while driving out demons and curing diseases…well, that’s just weird. But folks, when I read in my Bible what Jesus did and then read what he teaches followers to do, this is what I hear: that followers have power and authority to drive out demons, cure diseases, proclaim the coming Kingdom and heal things that destroy people’s lives. This is the center of the Gospel, and the power of it!

I once visited with a pastor who serves a downtown church. We talked about a mission center he was asking his church to develop for their community and he said, “Some of our people don’t get what we’re doing. And I tell them, ‘If you knew Jesus better, you’d get it.’” He went on. “I’m trying to get my people to meet Jesus, so theyll get it.” Because when we get Jesus, we get what it means to follow him. And as we follow, we find ourselves more and more in the company of the broken-hearted, the blind, the poor, the prisoners — even those oppressed by demonic forces. People who are hungry for healing, and who need spiritual leaders who have a heart for healing — not because were that big-hearted, but because God is that big.

This is where most of us need to glance at our spiritual GPS. We understand the destination, but how do we get there from here? Jesus maps it out plainly to his followers in the last chapter of Luke, even using Paul’s powerful three-letter word. There he is, standing with his friends after the resurrection and he says, “Yes, it was written long ago that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise from the dead on the third day. It was also written that this message would be proclaimed in the authority of his name to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem: ‘There is forgiveness of sins for all who repent.’” And then Jesus says – listen to this: “You are witnesses of all these things. And now I will send the Holy Spirit, just as my Father promised. But (and this is the punchline) stay here in the city until the Holy Spirit comes and fills you with power from heaven.” (Luke 24:46-49, NLT)

Here’s the secret: don’t leave here until the Holy Spirit comes and fills you with power from heaven. This seems too simplistic to be enough, but it is a critical piece. The fact is, Jesus’ Church has met its quota of pastors who can get the bulletin printed, follow an order of worship and preach three points and a poem. But the Kingdom Church is starving — and “the fields are white” — for Spirit-filled followers who are willing to do all the work of an evangelist.

Whether you are worn out or burned out, you owe it to yourself and your sense of call to find a place of prayer, then shake the gates of heaven asking for the Holy Spirit to come and fill you, or fill you again.

Don’t leave that place until your heart aches again for those who are hungry for healing and waiting for someone to come, who brings with them Holy-Spirit power to cast out demons, cure diseases, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick. Don’t let go of the hem of Jesus’ garment you until you’ve received that. After all, what good is a bucketful of nails if you’ve got no hammer?

For more reflection from Dr. Moore, check out her Art of Holiness podcast here. This piece from the archives originally appeared on Wesleyan Accent in 2014.

Featured image courtesy Joshua Earle on Unsplash.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ A Prayer for Burning Grace: Protocols & Pentecost

Pastors and denominational leaders face tough decisions right now. The Christian faith is inherently embodied; we gather, we meet, we celebrate the Incarnation – the Word Made Flesh. For millenia, we’ve celebrated the Eucharist, finding Christ’s presence in the tangible – wine and bread, a burning grace.

The Christian faith is also inherently self-sacrificial; we mend, we serve, we search out the vulnerable, we protect, we value. We “look out not only for (our) own interests, but also for the interests of others,” being told, “let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus…” who “took the form of a servant.” (Phil. 2) Early Christians rescued abandoned babies on hillsides and cared for their own plague-stricken members as well as caring for poor members of the Empire (to the Empire’s chagrin).

In gathered worship or scattered and serving, Christians have been told that whatever we do, we should do with good cheer. Rejoice in worship, rejoice in giving. Rejoice in getting together, rejoice in serving others. Grumbling is apparently not a Fruit of the Spirit. We value creation; and we show it by serving.

Originally seen as shared by Dr. Holly Taylor Coolman.

The Body of Christ is essential even if meeting together is interrupted. Churches are essential insofar as the Body of Christ is essential; but access to church buildings is not an absolute, essential piece of the puzzle. While the Body of Christ, existing in the life of congregations, is essential, congregants are not expendable. We are a people who value life and promote its flourishing.

The Christian faith is inherently embodied; but it is also inherently self-sacrificial. And so many face tough decisions. Leaders of all denominations have an opportunity to take strain off of individual clergymembers by continuing to create contingency plans and best practice protocol:

plans, practices, and protocol that cheerfully look out for the value and dignity of each church member and potential visitor.

When the strain is greatest, let’s continue to forge ahead with creative resilience.

By doing so we march hand in hand with the midwives of Egypt, who protected vulnerable newborns at risk to their own lives, thwarting the easy call of casual contempt, by the burning grace of God.

By doing so we march hand in hand with Moses and Miriam, called to distance from the land of their upbringing, caught between warriors and water, carried to the other side on dry land by the burning grace of God.

By doing so we march hand in hand with Elijah, who poured water on his altar, making sure every single witness knew that it was only God who could make the fire fall, watching the revelation of God crack the sky, vindicated by the burning grace of God.

By doing so we march hand in hand with Esther, who found herself vulnerable in halls of influence and power, carried by the urgent encouragement of one who saw clearly the stakes for a whole people group. She found favor with the powerful, toppling corrupt schemes and protecting the innocent by the burning grace of God.

By doing so we march hand in hand with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who found themselves caught in the crucible but discovered in it the presence of a fourth – “I see a fourth man, who looks like the Son of God” – rescued from the inferno by the burning grace of God, not even smelling like ash.

By doing so we march hand in hand with Paul, who cried out in his letter to his fellow church members in Philippi how much he longed to see them face to face, person to person; how intently he prayed for them, by the burning grace of God.

By doing so we march hand in hand with John Wesley, who as a child was rescued by community members during a roaring house fire, grabbed from a window, a “brand plucked from the flames.” His early memories were seared by other people sacrificing in order to protect him; later he experienced his very soul being warmed, not by trauma but by the burning grace of God.

We have nothing to fear from closed doors; we have everything to fear from closed hearts.

Our hope is not in “business as usual,” our hope is in the fourth man, who looks like the Son of God, wandering around casually in the crucible with us – the Ascended Christ.

Our hope is not in the Pentecost banners we’re accustomed to seeing in church sanctuaries, our hope is in the Holy Spirit, who descended on believers – only to scatter them.

In this moment we still have a choice of what we are going to be: a dead, rotted stump of former things, or potent seed bursting with latent life, willing to live scattered by the Spirit.

By the burning grace of God, we pray, Christ Ascended, that you will char away our bent to dry rot; scatter us like fresh, powerful seed, holding the promise of fruit we can only imagine, because it is only possible through the radiance of your Holy Spirit.

We do not like feeling scattered, God; we would rather stay close to each other.

Remind us that You are enough.

Remind us that you bind the stretches of the universe together and you bind us together, too.

Remind us that your Holy Spirit is faithful to keep us sensitive to each others’ needs if we will listen to Your Spirit who binds us together.

You are not just God who sustains gravity; you are God who knits with quantum entanglement for fun. Entangle our spirits with Your Holy Spirit, like particles that, “cannot be described independently from the state of the others even when separated by large distances;” entangle our hearts with each other.

Christ Ascended, in you we find wholeness; Holy Spirit, entangle those of us who feel distanced, lonely, despairing, afraid.

By the burning grace of God, keep us from being overwhelmed by distancing; sustain us with Pentecost entanglement that scatters and connects at the same time.

Through Christ our Lord, the only open door we need – Amen.

Wesleyan Accent ~ Practical Coronavirus Communication for Congregations

Note from the Editor: It can be difficult to discern timely responses when so much shifts in just a week. Equipping yourself with resources is challenging when you not only must sort facts, probability, and panic, but you must also keep up to date with relevant developments. And so everyone from Old Navy to Christian denominations to the NBA is forced to rely on phrases like, “we are closely monitoring…” and “we have been in contact with” (which probably means an intern was on hold for 90 minutes) and “it is an evolving situation.” Yet there have been some beautiful responses from a variety of Wesleyan Methodist denominations to the spread of Coronavirus. Certainly many communities have been stepping up in a variety of ways; it is heartening to see. Christians certainly aren’t alone in that. Yet I have been moved repeatedly to see excellent resources and postures recommended and shared from a place of deep thoughtfulness, compassion, historical awareness, and humility. What was intended to be one post has grown into two: one focusing on Coronavirus communication tips and another reflecting on intentional posture and spiritual formation in the midst of outbreak disruption and upheaval. I hope these voices expressing Coronavirus communication resourcing for Wesleyan Methodist congregations will encourage, guide, and inspire. Elizabeth Glass Turner

Every denominational connection and individual congregation is assessing how to engage with emerging needs during a crisis, without worsening difficult circumstances or contributing to virus spread. Depending on the local context, that will look different from town to town, city to city, where dynamics differ. Naturally, resources for pragmatic service will continue to be driven along existing lines – relationships with food banks, local schools, senior citizen centers, ministerial associations, and chaplains in hospitals, public service agencies, incarceration facilities, and so on. (If your congregation would benefit from a Coronavirus-specific disaster preparedness plan, see this resource from the Wheaton College Humanitarian Disaster Institute – with an eye for highlighting a few of the most relevant/pressing sections.)

Given that local relationships will drive much of the local response, the following examples help address a couple of immediate needs faced by clergy and congregational members: church Coronavirus communication and communicating with vulnerable populations with proactive hospitality.

As we survey some great examples of communication under pressure, let’s keep in mind a United Methodist congregation in South Carolina has two confirmed cases who, along with the pastor, are currently self-quarantined: so pastors, develop a contingency plan in case you personally have to be physically isolated at some point.

Communicating Changes in Gathered Worship Routine:

A week ago, Rev. Eric Huffman, Lead Pastor of The Story: Houston was one of the first clergypeople on my social media feed to announce substantive changes to Sunday gathering practices. Just a few days before, the first confirmed case of Coronavirus had popped up in the high-density population area of Houston. Though some state governments are requesting limitations on public gatherings to fewer than 250 or 100 people, others haven’t yet; this puts congregations in a tricky situation. Do you keep the doors open or not? For churches in regions where public gathering hasn’t been addressed officially, The Story: Houston church made some sensible changes and communicated them clearly:

Five ways COVID-19 will affect tomorrow’s events:

We’re still gathering as scheduled – 8:45, 9:45, 11:05 in the morning. Things will mostly be the same as usual, with some exceptions:

1. Hugging is not allowed. Not even side hugs. If you attempt to hug someone, one of our several Krav Maga Houston specialists will respond accordingly.

2. We will not share Communion tomorrow. There will be a way to share Communion safely in the future, but until all our volunteers are up to speed on new processes, we’re not going to risk it.

3. OFFERING-FREE WORSHIP TOMORROW!! Kinda. Not really. Instead of passing the baskets, we’ll encourage you to use the wall boxes to make your offerings!

4. Hand sanitizer will be everywhere. We might even start baptizing with it.

5. We’ll worship Jesus. We’ll pray for those affected by Coronavirus, for those paralyzed by anxiety, and for those who are working to treat the ill and to develop vaccines.

If you’re sick, stay home! If you’re well but anxious, join us online at 11:05! If you’re well and you want to join us in person, I’ll see you tomorrow!

Announcements like this balance humor with respect for the gravity of unintended consequences: no one goes to church planning on unwittingly exposing everyone to illness just by taking the offering plate when it’s passed and handing it to the person next to them. This points to another strength in this communication: contamination hubs have been identified, analyzed, and named so that those who attend know what to expect. Passing the peace, passing the offering plates, and passing Communion elements all put people in close contact or involve multiple people touching a shared item. In the conclusion, an alternate mode of participating – “join us online” – is mentioned so that people can be comfortable with whatever decision they make about attendance even if they’re not ill.

Some regions have moved beyond these precautions to banning large gatherings and others are likely to do so soon. In the meantime, it’s still valuable to identify practices prone to spreading contamination and then proactively communicating planned adaptations.

Communicating District or Conference-Wide Worship Cancellations:

On a different level of church Coronavirus communication and preparedness, yesterday morning (March 13) an episcopal communication helped shoulder the burden of congregational decision-making: Bishop Mike McKee of the North Texas Conference relayed news of prohibition of large gatherings in Dallas County, given the announcement of a state of emergency.

The Bishop requested that all churches in metropolitan districts, not just large ones, cancel services for the next two Sundays at least and asked that rural district congregations choosing to gather provide additional sanitizing resources. He further requested that all church members in the conference over 60 or with vulnerable health conditions stay home and join worship virtually online, linking to a document providing a list of congregations offering livestream. (Since yesterday, I’ve learned of other Bishops requesting services to be cancelled.)

Bishop McKee wrote, “In this moment, the way that we as people of faith can do the most good and do no harm actually is to refrain from coming together. Practicing social distancing can be a way for us to prevent further infections and literally save human lives. While worship services and other church gatherings are canceled, it will be even more important for pastors and lay leaders to be attentive to our older and more vulnerable members. The ramifications of this pandemic are more than about health. People are at risk of loneliness and of suffering economic impacts.
 
This unprecedented moment gives us the opportunity to witness to our faith in ways other than gathering for worship. Pray for healthcare workers, community leaders, those suffering from the virus and their loved ones, and those who are being negatively impacted by this pandemic. As individual disciples and as churches, keep your eyes open for emerging needs and find creative ways to meet them. Be a source of hope in your circles of influence.
 
You will hear from me again soon as this situation continues to unfold.”

We live in interesting times when Bishops request that people stay home from church, but it is extremely valuable when leaders pave the way for a sensible response. Through this announcement, the Bishop has taken responsibility for closures (because there is usually some resistance from at least a few church members when services are canceled, no matter the reason). In doing so, he has also given permission to earnest church-goers and conscientious pastors to stand down from stoically carrying out weekly worship.

This is a slightly different angle from which to approach faith-based Coronavirus communication: when leaders carefully gather and analyze information and proactively collaborate on a clear response, they can be ready to implement a plan when officials announce and enact a policy. (As someone who expresses criticism of the episcopacy from time to time, it is important to pause and express appreciation when I believe something has been done especially well. Thank you, Bishop, for taking leadership on this matter.)

For Bishops or General Superintendents or District Superintendents, implementing decisions at a district or conference-wide level can alleviate stress on their clergy and congregations. Additional statements from Methodist denominations with an episcopal form of church government include this one from the College of Bishops of the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) church and this one from the Board of Bishops of the AME Zion church (under Focal Point – statement on the Coronavirus).

At the time of publication, several queries have been made with pastors and leaders in a couple of Wesleyan Methodist denominations with congregationalist-style forms of church government. Responses indicate that communication from District Superintendents has been limited to encouraging clergy to follow any official protocols on public gatherings. (These queries were not exhaustive; in a “rapidly evolving situation,” it is probable we will see more statements in the days to come from district leaders in these denominations. Let’s hope that we do, for the sake of the decision load their clergymembers are carrying.) Official statements from denominational leadership teams include this one from The Wesleyan Church, these daily statements from the Board of General Superintendents of the Free Methodist Church, this one from the Board of General Superintendents of the Church of the Nazarene, and this one from the Church of the Nazarene on local church recommendations.

Communicating Virtual Worship Tips:

A lot has changed in just a week, and a large number of churches are livestreaming worship this weekend (even small congregations can put a phone on a tripod to livestream to their Facebook page: click here to watch a short simple video called “Local Church Guide to Using Facebook Live”). My own pastor emailed a worship guide file, with prayers, responses, texts, and sermon included so that it’s easier to follow along with the livestream.

Livestreaming is a good move in the current circumstances but in the past, watching a livestreamed service sometimes emphasizes the gap between presence and absence, simply because many worship leaders or pastors forget it’s happening and don’t address remote, virtual participants! For pastors preaching from empty sanctuaries or their living rooms, it will now be difficult to ignore the remote, virtual participants.

Enter this helpful reflection from University AME Zion in Palo Alto, California, where Rev. Kaloma Smith is Pastor. It’s a unique congregation that often practices fresh communication takes. Yesterday, the church shared these virtual worship tips: We know watching church service online can seem distant and impersonal, so we put together a list of tips to help you get the most out of this experience.

Here are simple tips to get more out of virtual worship:

MAKE IT COMMUNAL: As you get ready to watch a service on live stream, don’t do it alone. Invite those in your house to join in watching the worship service, invite friends and family to watch it even if they’re not in the same house, or start a watch party on Facebook.

GET IN THE RIGHT MINDSET: Say a prayer before you start watching, asking God to allow you to be brought to a place of worship, where you can experience his glory and presence.

REMOVE DISTRACTIONS: Treat this time as special and Holy. Stop scrolling, turn off the news, don’t multitask, let those around you know that this time is sacred, and you shouldn’t be disturbed. You will get so much more out of this experience if you focus and allow yourself to connect with the worship and God in a new way.

INTERACT WITH THE SERVICE: When you start watching, say hi in the chat and let people know where you’re from, type in your prayer request, respond to the praise team and preacher with emojis and gifs. We are a community, and we want to hear from you.

PARTICIPATE IN THE WORSHIP: Sing along with the music team, clap your hands, open your mouth in prayer and praise, write notes from the sermon. The service is not a show to be watched, but an experience that you are an essential part of.

SUPPORT OUR MINISTRY: During these difficult times as you’re watching University, we really need your financial support. You can give the following ways…

Not only was it savvy for this congregation to address what are often invisible or unspoken hurdles in joining worship online, it’s also a church that is already well poised to remove hurdles to giving when physical gathering is limited. The avenues to continue financial support included traditional snail-mail and a link to give through the website but most notably mentioned the “text to give” option. (In fact, Rev. Smith was quoted on the situation a few days ago in USA Today, here.)

Let’s name this as part of congregational Coronavirus communication: during uncertainty characterized by “panic shopping,” if you’re a part of a faith community whose budgetary decisions you support and trust, it’s important to continue whatever capacity of giving you’re able to exercise. Many faith communities will be front-line resources partnering with local efforts to protect and shield vulnerable church members and community members.

A quick note on utilizing technology for virtual worship: some church members may need guidance on how to find the church Facebook page. If congregations tap a few people to make quick phone calls on Sunday morning to assist any who struggle to navigate emerging technology, a quick, easy walk-through or step-by-step instructions before service begins could help everyone be prepared to participate. (For instance – in a time when many grandkids might help a grandparent navigate technology, some grandparents live in assisted communities that are now closed to visitors.) If those who are livestreaming begin the stream early with music, greetings, or announcements, it will help people know they’ve arrived at the right “place” virtually.

Communicating with Vulnerable Community Members:

After processing many ramifications of disruption likely to accompany the spread of illness, Jennifer Crispin shared pragmatic Coronavirus communication insight about living well individually through intentional community in ways that support and serve others. Her thoughts have been echoed by others who similarly spent the week thinking through the likely scope of impact:

“There are still ways you can continue to SHOW UP for people, even if you can’t show up in person:

*Donate cash to your local food shelter. A whole lot of people are about to get more food insecure, and cash donations go so much farther than canned goods. Plus, you’ve spent enough time at the grocery store already.

*Get take out from your local Chinese restaurant. You may not have seen people being racist in your community, but lots of these businesses are taking a hit.

*Call your friend with a chronic health condition that you probably don’t fully understand and say, “I am going to the grocery store, what can I bring you?”

*Write a letter or call your loved ones in retirement centers, assisted living, long term care. Many are or will soon be curtailing visitors, and these folks are socially isolated enough. Remind them they are loved.

These are all different forms of communication. Financial support of food banks, organizations, and local businesses communicates; contacting someone in a vulnerable health position communicates; contacting loved ones or church members or simply any residents who are shut-in or live in long-term care facilities – that communicates.

What do these actions communicate?

They communicate solidarity and community identity. They communicate welcome (through hospitable gestures), humility (through the willingness to serve), and value (through reinforcing the worth of those whose actions are limited in public and community space). A hospitable posture isn’t solely practiced in welcoming people to a center of activity, like a church building; a hospitable posture actually reaches out and engages people where they are. (Engaging people doesn’t have to be a physical action, exposing a body to added risk factors.) It may sound odd to say that communicating with people who are isolated is an act of hospitality, because we think of hospitality as hosting people in our space.

But what if we think of it this way?

When I call aging adults in my family, faith community, or extended community – when I speak to them over the phone, which may be their default communication style more than it is mine – I am saying, “you belong here, you are welcome here, you are a gift here. You are not forgotten or irrelevant. You belong; you belong; you belong.

When I donate cash to a food bank or to my faith community’s emergency fund – when I give to a stressed organization with stressed volunteers or employees who are working long hours on policies that inevitably will be criticized by some – I am saying to the organization, to the ministry, and to each person depending on it, “you belong here, you are welcome here, you are a gift here. You are not taken for granted or at fault. You belong; you belong; you belong.”

When I contact friends who have a kid who’s immunocompromised or text someone going through chemo – when I tell them what I’m praying for them, and ask them to tell me something to do on their behalf – I am saying, “you belong here, you are welcome here, you are a gift here. You are not a liability or hassle. You belong; you belong; you belong.”

When I order take-out from a restaurant owned and staffed by immigrants – when I show up or delivery arrives and I smile and make eye contact and say thank you – I am saying, “you belong here, you are welcome here, you are a gift here. You are not alone or unwanted. You belong; you belong; you belong.”

Many of these dynamics – church communication, what it means to extend hospitality – aren’t new to our sisters and brothers in the faith who live in different parts of the world. It seems appropriate to acknowledge and repent of times when, in our distraction or self-centered routine, we displayed casual disinterest when other regions have been rocked by outbreaks, sometimes of illnesses much more devastating than the Coronavirus.

Mother Teresa shared a great deal of wisdom on many occasions. Several of her insights are timely right now; one in particular comes to mind as we consider how we communicate and what we are communicating.

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Living with Gracious Conviction

How do you express your convictions with deep respect, appreciation, and even grief? This is a question many are wrestling with currently. An acquaintance for whom I hold deep respect named this struggle quite clearly on social media recently. He addressed it with humility, genuinely hoping to find a way of communicating with both conviction and graciousness. Living with gracious conviction isn’t just something to be pursued by leaders in one denomination, either, as denominational Hospice care is called in for the UMC. How might Christians not only speak with gracious conviction but also live with gracious conviction? How might people uncertain of their faith but desperate for respectful dialogue speak and live with gracious conviction?

Embodying Service

In a time when words are thrown around a dime a dozen online – when we’re so inundated with words communicated through modern technology that emojis were developed to communicate nonverbal intent – speaking and living with gracious conviction means getting our hands dirty.

It is not only acceptable, for Christians it is biblical to be prodigal – generous and extravagant with our service toward others. Our service can never solely be toward people who affirm our religion or our theological convictions. Occasionally, no matter what theological camp one finds herself in, there is the fear that showing service, care, or love to someone with whom you disagree is somehow a token of your agreement with all their opinions. This is patently, incontrovertibly wrong. To love your neighbor as yourself, to “let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2) means to promote the welfare and well-being of people who may think you’re wrong, misguided, ignorant, blinded – or laughable. No theological camp is immune. Progressive liberal activists and conservative traditionalists alike easily justify withholding a towel and basin on the basis of principle.

Embodied service doesn’t require the perpetuation of one organization – an organization attempting to hold together so many different theological threads that it is straining and ripping at the seams. Embodied service simply means showing up for people with whom we profoundly disagree, because we value their lives. Organizational pragmatism may indicate the advisability of existing as separate worshiping bodies, where demonstrably and repeatedly over decades profound disagreement emerges on who exactly we’re worshiping.

Belonging to the same organization has never been a prerequisite for serving someone, though. Belonging to the same denomination or tradition isn’t a requirement. The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. For those in the Wesleyan Methodist branch of the family tree of the faith, we’re familiar with John Wesley’s thinking on the “means of grace,” which include not only works of piety, but works of mercy.

So maybe you notice someone you’ve been arguing with on social media has a sick family member: send them flowers or a restaurant gift card. Maybe you’ve lost your graciousness in an exchange with a colleague: apologize without self-justification. Shovel their sidewalk; mow their lawn. Maybe you long for someone to know that no matter how deeply you differ, you’re trying to really see them, hear them, and treat them with dignity. Donate in their honor to a non-profit they might value.

In times when words are cheap, show up with actions to demonstrate the posture of your heart. It’s interesting that actions shape attitudes as well. Getting down on your knees to pick up the coins accidentally dropped by someone who thinks you’re deeply wrong? You and they both need to feel your willingness to do it, whether or not they ever express gratitude or reciprocation.

The image we have to guide us is Jesus at the Last Supper – Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. These feet included the feet of Judas, who would walk out of the room with feet cleaned by God and would walk to betray God whose hands were wet with dirty water. Jesus knew and knelt anyway. We can’t do less.

Verbalizing Gratitude

Living with gracious conviction can also be expressed by finding something for which you can say thank you. Find something, however small, that you appreciate, and say it. To live and speak with gracious conviction is to step aside from intense irritation, anger, hurt, or frustration long enough to find anything you can say “thank you” to.

This doesn’t come from an odd need to debase yourself. It doesn’t come from a place of neediness for affirmation. Rather, verbalizing gratitude simply reinforces the essential humanity of another person. It reminds both you and them of your acknowledgment that they have something to contribute to the world. If we are quick to write off people due to their opinions, are we making it easier to write off their innate value? Jesus was willing to meet at night in private with Nicodemus, a man who belonged to a group publicly opposed to Jesus during the day.

Obviously, very, very few people in human history have been completely, thoroughly given over to all-consuming evil. If most people are a complex mixture of motives, wounds, gifts, personal histories, self-sabotaging habits, prevenient grace, corrosive self-centeredness, and will – yet all the while made in the image of God, however fractured – then thanking them is a simple, genuine way to communicate gratitude for their existence. It also leaves the door open, because you never know when someone may change their mind, and giving them a path and doorway to do so is vital. Finding something for which you can thank a person will acknowledge that they may have some kind of insight you do not (even if it’s a coffee recommendation) and that you are in the position to receive that insight. It takes discipline to think and communicate in ways that constantly remind us, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, of the glory other beings are capable of bearing.

There is always something you can thank someone for. There is always something you can appreciate. It may have to be only, “I like your shirt.” It may have to be, “thank you for engaging in a difficult conversation,” or “I appreciate the time you took to respond,” or “thank you for sharing your perspective; it’s a privilege to hear your story, I don’t take it lightly.”

If there’s genuine opportunity, you can even verbalize something you’ve learned from them, gained from them, or notice about them. “You are really passionate about what you believe, and I respect that,” or “I know we’re operating from different convictions, but I’ve noticed you’re really gifted at ________, and I hope you have ways of utilizing those talents,” or, “a while back you mentioned ___________ and while I know we have different perspectives on other topics, I want you to know how much I appreciated it when you said __________.”

One time Jesus healed ten men isolated and marginalized by disease; they were so eager to go get medical clearance and find their loved ones that they ran off. Only one came back to thank Jesus – and the one that returned to thank Jesus was a Samaritan – a “foreigner” whose social marginalization wouldn’t end with the healing of a disease. Sometimes we forget how rarely people hear the words “thank you.” Can you think of a time someone thanked you and it made a world of difference?

For Christians, one of the distinctive practices of our faith is sharing Communion – the Eucharist – the “Great Thanksgiving.” To receive Communion is to remember we are recipients of grace. To thank others is to remember we are all recipients of grace, none more worthy than another.

Responding to the Real Thing and the Real Person

Living and speaking with gracious conviction means giving others the gift of seeking to understand their position as they would describe it. You don’t have to agree with it or their conclusions or actions; but you can’t reject a caricature of their position and then pronounce your rejection of the caricature.

Christians are called to seek Truth. In this sense, we are committed to responding to the real. This means we work to seek out and find the real. So while we may hold differing beliefs, convictions, or theological perspectives, a commitment to the Truth means a commitment to discovering what someone actually believes. You’re not repeating someone’s opinion of what someone else believes. You’re not reporting on hearsay of what a group believes. You’re actually researching for yourself to the best of your ability. It is work.

The difficulty of course is that humans are so good at saying one thing and doing another, and that humans are so good at seeing themselves in optimal light and others with skepticism. No one is perfectly self-aware, and whole groups of people may profess one value but fail to embody it consistently.

However, we’re speaking here of explicitly stated declarations of belief, and not just the ability to live those beliefs consistently. We may insist that a Christian denomination ought to have some meaningful measure of shared theology about who Jesus is without making a caricature of one individual hateful progressive activist intolerant of those with whom they disagree. We may insist that a Christian denomination ought to value and act on initiatives to dismantle systemic racism, poverty, and injustice, without making a caricature of one individual hateful traditionalist conservative intolerant of those with whom they disagree.

To live with gracious conviction is to be ruthlessly committed to the Truth, which requires us to represent others’ convictions as fairly as possible – so that they would be able to recognize the description as an accurate representation of themselves. In this sense, it’s simple honesty. We are trying to be truthful and fair in our representation of others (even though it’s not nearly as satisfying as sharing a meme mocking them; unless it’s a meme mocking the Patriots, we can all agree those are universally acceptable, right?).

By responding to the real beliefs and professed values rather than mischaracterizations, we extend dignity to those with whom we differ. And to thoughtlessly, carelessly mischaracterize an opponent is to lie and steal – you are lying about their beliefs or motives and you are stealing their reputation. What may have been a profound but respectful disagreement becomes a hurtful, toxic stew of mischief that feeds off the half-formed perspectives of those new to the conflict and bewildered by the exaggerated portraits they’re presented. When we research and read and listen and track down primary sources and ignore clickbait commentary, it’s easier to respond both to beliefs and to the people who hold them.

Recently a friend commented, “it’s easy to hate something you get to define.” He meant that it’s easy to decide something is A, and since you hate A, you hate the something. The question is whether something is A or whether you quickly decided it is – and then dismissed it. To live with gracious conviction is to be willing to learn what something is before you decide to define it and reject it.

Laughing at Yourself

Some of the people in my life who most closely embodied the word “saint” are people who never took themselves too seriously even when other people took them very seriously indeed. There was a childlikeness to them, independent of age. By all means, take Christ seriously – though Chesterton reminded us all of how surprised we’ll be by God’s mirth – but in your earnestness, be able to laugh at yourself easily. Your silly, inconsistent, hobbit-like self.

I can make a cheap shot at the Patriots that will garner a strong response of approval or howls of indignation – but the truth is, I rarely watch American NFL football, my loyalty to the Colts is casually based on growing up in Indiana, and I have no idea whether other teams cheat as well and the Patriots just got caught at it. I can smile while looking at my silly bias, when I haven’t watched football in over a year and the last time I really cared about the Colts was before Manning headed West.

We’ve got to be able to laugh at ourselves.

In a culture in which we all take ourselves quite seriously, perhaps one sign of holiness is holding our own dignity and reputation lightly while seeking to deal fairly with others’. Burnt out pastors and leaders in particular struggle to be able to laugh at themselves; a sign you’re on the path to rest and restoration is when you can have fun again without worrying what’s being neglected while you do. Living with gracious conviction doesn’t mean the responsibility is all on your shoulders. It’s not irresponsible to a cause to stop and smile; it’s essential.

If you believe that in his full God-ness Jesus was also full human, then remember: we have a Savior who laughed until he cried. Probably at James and John, who seem likely to have been the Fred and George Weasley of the disciples.

Show up and serve (your enemies), say thank you (to your opponents), respond to the real thing (not the caricature), laugh at yourself (instead of others). These habits will help form a posture of communicating – of living – with gracious conviction. Most of them rely on humility in action; they show and shape perspective at the same time. They are habits learned as we follow Jesus around as his apprentices. They don’t always come easily; as we learn, we still fall short. But this is the Jesus way. We can’t do less – and by God’s grace, it will become easier.